Features and Bugs

The other day, Jessica Valenti was touting a questionable bit of statistics:

A new study by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization shows that abortion rates are similar in different countries whether the procedure is legal or not. Shocking, I know. Of course, what wasn't similar was the risk to women's health.

Scott Lemieux went even stronger to say that "the only thing that criminalizing abortion accomplishes is to ensure that some number of women will be maimed or killed." The trouble with these kinds of cross-national statistics, though, is that there are all kinds of correlating variables and there's no way for the kind of survey we're talking about to isolate the impact of legal change on abortion. In the United States, when abortion was legalized in the 1970s, the number of abortions went up.

What's more, I'm not really sure why one would think that the case for reproductive freedom hinges crucially on the idea that making abortions safer, more affordable, and more convenient to obtain has no impact on the number of abortions people get. After all, if nothing else the very dangerous nature of the abortion procedure in the abortion-banning countries constitutes a sound consideration against getting an abortion in those places. Legal abortions not only allow women determined to terminate their pregnancies do so safely, but they allow women determined to manage their pregnancies safely do so by terminating them. Meanwhile, it seems that legal abortion helps promote relatively more permissive attitudes about sex. But both of those things -- fewer people refraining from sex out of fear of pregnancy and fewer people carrying to term babies they don't really want to have out of fear of the adverse health consequences of illegal abortions are good things not untoward consequences of legal abortion that need to be swept under the rug.